(Sarah Brezinsky Gilbert for the Boston Globe)

A century of savoring a juicy bit of Britannia

From Rhode Island to Fall River, three shops feed and celebrate the cult of the cute pork pie

Email|Print| Text size + By Robert Preer
Globe Correspondent / October 15, 2006

LINCOLN, R.I. -- A tiny red-brick building stands on a corner of busy Smithfield Avenue. A weathered metal sign extending over the sidewalk announces ``Hartley's Pork Pies " and a plastic sign in the window a cheerful ``Yes We Have Pies."

Inside, the scene could be straight out of London or Liverpool. Patrons queue up at the counter to collect cardboard boxes filled with muffin-sized meat pies. On the wall is a map of Britain, a picture of Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation at Westminster Abbey, and a photograph of Winston Churchill.

``I have English people who come in here a lot," says store owner Dan Doire, taking a break from preparing the meat, mixing the dough, filling the tins, baking the pies, and waiting on customers. ``We also sell bangers [an English sausage]. We have people come from all over. I have people who are going to New Hampshire come in and get a couple of dozen. I've had people buy pies to send to Iraq."

For aficionados of British cuisine or anyone who wants to be transported to a time and place before McDonald's and Burger King, northern Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts offer a unique taste treat. Within a half hour's drive of each other are three establishments whose main reason for existence is pork pies -- Hartley's Pork Pies here and in Somerset and Hartley's Original Pork Pies in Fall River.

The three stores, which have common ancestry but are not affiliated today, produce an almost identical product: handmade British-style pork pies , which can be served hot or cold, as a snack or a meal.

A Hartley's pie exudes cuteness along with the rich, blended aroma of pie crust and roast pork. The pie is a mere 3 inches in diameter, and 2 to 3 inches high, its flaky crust imprinted with an ``H." The filling is lean ground pork mixed with spices. Gravy or broth is added through a slit on top right after the pie comes out of the oven.

Pork pies are all but impossible to find in US groceries and an enormous chore to make at home. (Think of cutting and grinding the meat, mixing and kneading the dough, preparing sauce and spices, molding and filling the tins, then baking for an hour and cleaning up a messy kitchen.)

At the three Hartley's stores, a pie costs $1.50 to $2, less than the price of a large coffee in many places.

Some people will go to great lengths -- and distances -- to get their pies. When visiting her retreat on Martha's Vineyard, actress Patricia Neal sometimes swings by Fall River to pick up a couple of dozen. The store has supplied parties at the British consulate in Boston and the Kennedy compound in Hyannis.

The three establishments are descended from a store established by Thomas Hartley, an Englishman who came to the United States in the late 1800s to work in Fall River's textile mills. Finding factory work not to his liking, he opened a pork pie shop on South Main Street around 1900.

The business was a huge success, as factory workers -- mainly immigrants, including many from the British Isles -- would pay a nickel and grab a pie for lunch or a snack when their shifts ended. Their popularity gave rise to a Fall River slogan: ``The city of mills, hills, and pork pies."

The business later would fracture.

After his first wife died, Hartley remarried. He had children by both wives, and after his death, the child of one wife took over the Fall River store. The child of the other wife set up three of his children with stores in Somerset, Lincoln, and New Bedford.

Eventually, the New Bedford store closed, while the other three were sold to non family members.

The surviving establishments say they use authentic recipes from Hartley's kitchen. The Fall River store has one exclusive claim to history, in that it is in the same building where Hartley ran his business.

``We've been here 106 years," said owner Allen C. Johnson. ``We've lasted World War I. We lasted the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, now the war in Iraq. We've survived all of these transitions in Fall River's history."

And the secret to the store's longevity? ``It's the quality of the pies," Johnson says emphatically. ``And they're unique."

Johnson's business is more diversified than the others. While all three dabble in salmon pies, Johnson serves up chicken pies, chorizo pies (a nod to Fall River's Portuguese population), even an occasional pizza pie. He also makes family-sized pies, which were never on Thomas Hartley's menu and which the other stores don't offer.

The Somerset store is about 5 miles north of Johnson's on Route 138. Owner Donald Setters sees himself as a faithful keeper of Hartley's tradition. He holds roughly the same hours Hartley did, closing at 2 p.m. He does stay open on Friday, which Hartley did not because so many customers shunned meat on that day.

The layouts of the Somerset and Lincoln stores are in the spirit of Thomas Hartley, according to Setters. The pie pick-up counter is walled off from the kitchen so that customers cannot get even a glimpse of the pies being made. Hartley wanted an air of mystery to his pies, Setters said.

About 20 years ago, some news stories were published about a ``pork pie war," playing up competition among the stores. If there ever was a rivalry, it has faded now, according to the proprietors.

``It's friendly," says Johnson. ``Actually, it helps me that they're there."

``We've made a fun thing out of it," says Setters. ``We're not enemies. We're friends."

Doire says, ``I don't think there is a rivalry today. My customers have tried the others and they say mine are the best. I'm sure they have their customers who say the same thing."

Johnson and Setters have hopes of expanding their empires. Johnson says he signed a franchise agreement with a businessman in Arlington, Texas, so pork pies may be available in that city one of these days.

Setters says he has a deal to have his pies produced and sold in a bakery in Reading . He hopes eventually to have pies produced for sale in specialty groceries.

The three standard- bearers don't expect to give McDonald's a run for its money. They are happy doing what they do now.

As the clock approached 2 one recent afternoon, Setters took the day's last batch out of the oven. He picked up one of his golden brown creations and made a surgical incision just under the H. With a pitcher, he poured warm broth into the steaming middle.

Admiring his handiwork, he said, ``You know, I have literally made way more than a million of these, but they make me smile every time."

Contact Robert Preer at

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